It’s dark. Loud music blares in the background. Uncertain as to what lurks around the corner, you inch forward slowly with trepidation. A flush comes over your face. Your eyes are wide open, anxiously awaiting the next step. Your heart beats rapidly. You suddenly feel like you can’t breathe — like you’re gasping for the thick air as you try and gulp it down.
Then you turn the corner.
A raging wolverine howls and appears in front of you while hands start grabbing at you from each side.
Fear has now overcome you, and a loud scream flows through your vocal cords and out your mouth.
And just as quickly as the fright washed over you, relief has set in and you and your friends at the haunted attraction begin to laugh, mindful that there is no danger and you are safe. Neither the mechanical wolverine nor the grabbing hands are going to hurt you.
The chuckles that often follow a scream are not surprising, according to some experts who believe that fear and laughter are closely related.
"Faced with the same sociological or psychological stimuli, some subjects will experience fear and others will laugh energetically," Brett Hays, creative director of Fear Fair in Indiana and a member of the national Haunted Attraction Association, said in a news release. "This natural chemical release varies person to person, depending on their history and their own intimate fears."
Haunted attraction officials — like Dr. Margee Kerr, staff sociologist at the ScareHouse in Pittsburgh and Patrick Konopelski, president of the Haunted Attraction Association — have gained insight into the science of fear and the psychology of the scream.
In her studies, Kerr found that there is biology involved with feelings of fright.
Chemicals such as endorphins, adrenaline and dopamine, which are typically associated with feelings of pleasure and positivity, also are released when a person feels scared.
"It may seem ironic that we end up feeling positive after a scare, but that’s the body’s way of getting through the intense experience and working to make us feel less pain and more good," Kerr said in the news release.
Lynn Merechka, who operates the Haunted Prison at Chaffee Crossing, said the chemical high people experience while touring a haunted attraction is what keeps them coming back for more.
"People actually like the adrenaline rush. They know they’re gonna go in there and scream," Merechka said. "Sometimes, they’ll come out of there, and they look like they’re exhausted. Everything’s so tense, and they’re pumped up with so much adrenaline."
Merechka said the different levels of screams that people voice typically alert the Haunted Prison staff as to how a person is coping with the fear.
"We can actually tell when they’re going through there when they’ve had enough," Merechka said, adding that his crew is well-versed in reading people’s reactions. "Once it gets to a certain point, we leave them alone so they don’t stroke out on us."
Kerr said another process may be compelling thrill-seekers to frequent haunted houses. She said that some people flock to the haunts for the sense of elated accomplishment they feel once they’ve made it through.
"Once you’ve overcome the haunted experience, that feeling of mastery will eventually evoke nostalgia and leave a positive memory with people," Kerr said. "Surviving the haunt truly becomes a bonding experience; people become close to each other just waiting in line and then high-five at the finish line."
Dr. Kathy Kralik, a local clinical psychologist, said an occasional scare is good for a person’s health.
"It’s a controlled way to test our bodies — to get our juices flowing and see how we’re doing," Kralik explained of the psychoimmunology involved in the process. "When we go to a haunted house, we’re testing ourselves."
Kralik said a person is better able to keep stress levels under control by exposing themselves to the various stress resistors.
If a person knows they have possible stress risk factors, such as a heart condition, testing the body through fear is not recommended, Kralik said. But for a healthy person, testing the body through experiencing fears to see how the body responds can be a good thing.
"The novelty is good for the brain," she added. "It helps you out, and you have a good time."
So why do people love to be scared into screaming?
Kerr, Konopelski and Hays deduce that science, the sense of accomplishment and the unknown are the easy answers.
Merechka said a better question might be why the haunted-attraction operators, who some might call "sadistic," like to scare people.
"It’s fun to scare people, to get that reaction out of them," Merechka added.